NCAS Professors Push the Boundaries of Pedagogy With New Course on HBO's "The Wire"

Lawrence Lerner

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, nearly 100 students packed a lecture room in Ackerson Hall. On two large screens on the front wall, a still image of a man’s face stared out at them, towering over the audience. Darting up the center aisle, Professor Fran Bartkowski panned the room with her eyes and asked the students about an interaction the man had with another character, then retreated a few steps back as she awaited answers.

A hand shot up. Then another hand. And another. Bartkowski called on and listened to each student intently in a dynamic give-and-take that created a buzz in the room. Minutes later, the conversation ceased. The lights went dim and the man’s motionless image came alive onscreen as the students settled into their seats for some prime-time viewing.

This scene, replicated each Tuesday this the fall, is part of an ambitious experiment that Bartwowski and Professor Sherri-Ann Butterfield are embarking on: team-teaching a large-format, multidisciplinary course on HBO’s acclaimed television series The Wire.

The show, epic in its scope and depth, spanned 60 episodes over its five-year run, gaining accolades for its hard-hitting social critique of urban life in Baltimore and, in the process, pushing the boundaries of television as a mass medium. Bartkowski, who is chairperson of the English Department, and Butterfield, a professor of sociology and Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, sat down recently to discuss their course, the planning that went into it, and the impact it has had on campus.


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When did you come up with the idea of team-teaching a course on The Wire, and what inspired it?

Butterfield: As far back as 2008, we realized our mutual interest in the show. Then we talked about producing scholarship on it and actually worked on, and shopped around, an anthology manuscript consisting of writing from six or seven academics from various disciplines. The book didn’t happen, but we kept talking.

Bartkowski: We then thought of the idea of team-teaching a course on the show in spring 2012, coming at it from our English and Sociology disciplines, which we thought could really work.

So, how did you plan for the course? And how daunting was it, knowing you were teaching five seasons of a “visual text,” rather than a conventional course?

Bartkowski: We watched 60 hours of The Wire together, in the same room, which enabled us to have many conversations while viewing and, ultimately, made it easier. We probably added another 60 hours of talking, brainstorming, planning and pulling together articles. So, it was a very different process than with most courses.

Butterfield: And it was a bit daunting. I’ve used documentary films and clips to supplement my traditional sociology classes, but this was entirely different. We learned a lot through planning this together.

I imagine the classroom itself was also daunting at first. How are you running the course and tackling all that material? And how large is the class?

Bartkowski: There are about 100 students. It’s the largest lecture either of us has taught. We have a grader and a teaching assistant helping us. And we run it as a discussion class, believe it or not: We devote three weeks to each of the five seasons of The Wire and require that students keep up with both a viewing and reading schedule, then come to class prepared to talk about the material. So, every session we show clips and break up the class for large- and small-group discussion. For each season, we’ve also been taking one whole class period to view an entire episode.

And how do the students access the TV series?

Butterfield: A month before the semester started, we sent students a list of legal ways to watch the show, which included Amazon streaming, HBO Go, and places to access the DVDs. We also ordered one full set of DVDs for the library.

What issues and themes have you been focusing on?

Bartkowski: The Wire is so rich thematically. We’re looking at questions of masculinity, chain of command, ethics, care, surveillance, interlocking institutions—and of course sexualities, kinship, and race-class-gender. We’re also examining the visual staging, which has its own set of codes. For instance, what does it mean when characters usually seen indoors and in secret locations are all of a sudden out in public, on the Baltimore harbor? How does it change their meaning? Finally, we’re looking at what gets communicated between characters through non-verbal clues, as well as how lighting produces meaning.

Sounds like a very complex mix. How about your expectations: What were they going in, and how has the class both met and deviated from those?

Butterfield: We didn’t know what to expect. I’d never team-taught, and Fran had done it only once before. We also wondered how the interplay between our disciplines would work out; it’s been a finely executed dance, and we’ve complemented each other nicely. And, as Fran mentioned, it’s the first time we’ve taught a lecture this large. That we’re still running it as a discussion class has been essential. The energy and synergy have been great.

Bartkowski: We were also excited to teach this particular course on this diverse campus—to non-privileged students at home with urban environments and issues. We looked forward to the kind of conversations we could have with them, and to getting them to think hard about things they take for granted or are only partially conscious of. When they start watching and discussing, they realize quickly how much they know. It just seemed like a natural to take this text, which puts it all into play, and see where we could go with it.

Will you teach this course again?

Bartkowski: Yes. We went into it thinking we’d teach it for only a semester, but it’s apparent that people want it again.

Why do you think that is?

Butterfield: Well, even with 100 students on our first attempt, it’s gone smoothly. The team-teaching has been great, we’ve done all the preparation and work, and there seem to be many students on campus who are interested, which is great, since it keeps the show and its issues alive.

Bartkowski: It’s also not a typical Sociology/English course, which piques student’s interest. In fact, there’s been national interest in teaching courses on The Wire, but typically only elite schools do it because of the flexibility they have.

It certainly is unique for this campus. That said, any last thoughts?

Bartkowski: This has been so powerful for us that we’ve decided to create a spin-off series debuting in the spring called “All the Pieces Matter: Newark, Rutgers, Inspired by The Wire,” which folks should know about.

Sounds interesting.

Bartkowski: It should be good. Together with the Cornwall Center and the Center for Migration and the Global City, we’re putting on three events that will bring the Newark community to our campus to discuss how our expertise and knowledge can be put to use by all the relevant stakeholders. The February event will focus on youth, the March event on civic government, and the April program on media.

Butterfield: It’s kind of a pivotal moment to have these conversations actually: There’s a Newark mayoral election coming up, there’s a debate about whether Newark’s schools should come back under local control, and Nancy Cantor is coming aboard as Rutgers-Newark’s next chancellor. All of this dovetails nicely and should make for a great series. There will also be satellite events on campus during those months.

Great. We’ll look forward to hearing more. Meantime, thank you both for speaking with us.

Bartkowski: Thank you. It’s been fun.
Butterfield: Yes, thank you.